Ryan Adams Goes to Town
    • TUESDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2006

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    We thought we'd give Town Hall a little more publicity, seeing as they are a non-profit and all... With that in mind, today's entry comes from the cluttered desk of Jason Leahey, a writer/teacher/rockstar-at-large who caught one of Ryan Adams' Town Hall gigs last week.

    Ryan Adams. Credit: BBC

    Ryan Adams and the Cardinals: Live at Town Hall, 12/6/06

    Rock artists that book Town Hall are the same artists played between segments of All Things Considered. Well-schooled in his predecessors, poetic and intelligent in his vision, and streaked with country-fried eccentricity, Ryan Adams meets all of the necessary criteria. Not just undeniably good but also sufficiently mature to be considered Art, his music has pricked the ears of those well-groomed and well-paid 30 and 40-somethings who appreciate rock concerts, book release parties, and Knicks games as equal opportunities for social networking over drinks. This is the population that laughs loudly at gallery openings while never noticing the paintings and it is the population that has paid Adams and his band The Cardinals to play Town Hall for three, sold-out nights at the height of the holiday season. They are by no means dominant among the crowd, but as individuals able to shell out fifty bucks a pop two and a half before Christmas, they are many.

    Ryan Adams’s talent and sincerity are so beyond dispute, concert reviews inevitably focus on the personality on display. Which Ryan will the audience get tonight? The rambunctious and goofy Ryan? The sullen and quiet Ryan? When he walks on stage and, without a word, rips into the forlorn harmonica that begins crowd favorite "Come Pick Me Up," the answer is obvious. The song would be a radio hit if Adams was a radio artist, but it’s safe to say that it shuffles through many an iPod that carries only a dozen or so Adams cuts. Even the sharp-dressed men who keep checking their Blackberries seem to know it. Opening with the song is like Neil Young opening with "Cinnamon Girl" rather than a track off Trans. Tonight’s Ryan Adams is aiming to please, the audience knows it, and those women with the leather jackets and expensive handbags just might stay interested.

    Whoops and thunder fill the hall when the song ends, triumphant fists are raised above the heads of the seated crowd, and then the band is on into "Stars Go Blue," another crowd pleaser. Adams’s falsetto is perfect, the ache in the audience is palpable, the seats themselves seem insulting. Feet beat out the rhythm on the floor and heads cut lazy grooves in the air. A soccer mom in a collarless sweatshirt shakes it at the foot of the stage and sings along. It seems only a matter of time before the whole organism is called awake and dances, croons, cries itself into being.

    Adams tells us he’s been sober for seven months. He smiles and mumbles, proudly proclaims that he has forgotten the set list and leads the Cardinals through heartache ballads and screeching rockers. He’s in a rare great mood, decked out in jeans that would make David Lee Roth wince and sporting twin pigtails like antennae. He wears black glasses thick as fenders and blows his cheeks out, flashing a school’s-out grin. He’s the kid in 8th grade who wears his freak on his sleeve, the one giving you Nothing’s Shocking when you’re listening to To The Extreme, the one who snorts Pixie Stix and whose parents have never been seen by anyone. He kicks one leg back and, holy shit!, he’s even wearing Gene Simmons boots. The music veers from Jackson Browne pedal steel to 1950s roadhouse blues to warm, warbling country and it doesn’t matter that the templates formed by past artists are as plain as day. They may have glaring predecessors but they all feel distinctly like Ryan Adams songs, the man’s personality, his adolescent force of will, holding them all together as a catalog. Ryan Adam’s music embodies all that his notorious arrested development implies: the mercurial moods, the goofiness and angst and eagerness to please. The brattiness. These very qualities which can make him so frustrating go hand in hand with an openness to the sounds that have passed through him. He’s a sponge and his songs reflect that. And they are great songs, are being played with real grace and precision, and seem one of a kind.

    So it shouldn’t matter that multiple couples seem perfectly content to talk through the whole show, that the women with those handbags keep crashing over everyone’s knees so they can head back to the bar, that no one seems to be singing along. This is New York after all, the city that has the most jaded, cooler-than-you crowds. It’s a terrible city to see a show, particularly if the artist is one of the anointed Artistes, and we know this. The performance is excellent and nothing else should matter.

    But it does. After the first half a dozen songs, the swaying and raised arms have mostly gone still. The half-dozen people who stood up for "Afraid Not Scared" have been threatened with expulsion by the ushers. Each yell from the seats feels naked and is drowned out by audience requests, a standard part of most shows but one that makes Adams petulant and sulky. The believers want a b-side, an old Whiskeytown tune. The scenesters want "New York, New York" or another track off their ten-song Ryan Adams Mix. Part of the audience is awestruck and part is wondering if it’s too late to get Christmas Eve reservations at Balthazar. The believers want to move, to sing along, but indifference is always heavier than passion.

    And Adams can feel that. His mumbles grow more obscure. He yells into the wings that a button somewhere has not been properly pushed. He is sulky and pissed. Sitting at the piano, he plays "Rescue Blues," a final crowd pleaser, and then skulks off the stage without a word. A roadie brings out a new guitar, ready for the encore, but the lights immediately go up. The elite are up and pushing to get out, excited to have time for another drink in the lobby. The fans stand in place and stare at the stage, angry or exasperated. The sound of sleigh bells barrels out of the speakers and Ryan Adams, in his adolescent angst, does not return to reward those who know that a rock concert is much, much different than a Knicks game.

    - Jason Leahey

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